Women live significantly longer in poor health than men

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According to a recent report by the World Economic Forum, women spend 25 per cent more years of their lives in poor health than men. Gender inequality in medical research and care (gender health gap) remains high. Without a rapid rethink, this gap could widen further with the increasing use of artificial intelligence in medicine, warns gender medicine expert Alexandra Kautzky-Willer from MedUni Vienna on the occasion of International Women’s Day on 8 March.

Diseases of the cardiovascular system, above all’heart attacks, are still considered typical male diseases, but at 37 per cent they are the number one cause of death in women (men 32 per cent). Cancer follows in second place with 21 per cent: "There has been an increase here in recent years, with lung cancer in particular occurring in more and more women," reports Alexandra Kautzky-Willer from MedUni Vienna’s Department of Medicine III. According to the Austrian Women’s Health Report 2022, the number of patients with gestational diabetes has doubled since 2010 - a drastic increase that is caused by obesity in at least 30 per cent of cases. The spread of obesity is also partly responsible for the fact that type 2 diabetes is also increasing in women at a younger age and that they are disproportionately affected by cardiovascular complications. This also applies to diseases of the musculoskeletal system and the psyche: osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis are particularly common in women compared to men; the risk of developing depression over the course of a lifetime is two to three times higher in women than in men.

19.3 years in poor health

The burden of disease that women often have to bear during their working years is high: according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Health Gap Report 2024, which shows the situation in around 150 countries, women therefore live on average 25 per cent fewer years in good health than men worldwide. The discrepancy in Austria is somewhat less significant: according to the Austrian Women’s Health Report, women in this country live to be 83.7 years old on average, but spend around 19.3 years in average to poor health, compared to 16.2 years for men.

The causes of the gender health gap start with research: despite progress over the past 20 years, women are still underrepresented in clinical trials. This leads to gaps in data and knowledge, but also to delays in diagnosis. A study conducted in Denmark over a period of 21 years showed that women receive a diagnosis later than men in the case of more than 700 diseases. In the case of diabetes, for example, the delay is four and a half years. US analyses show that less than half of women living with endometriosis are diagnosed at all. The effects of delayed diagnosis are particularly serious in the case of heart attacks: the risk of dying from a heart attack is 20 per cent higher in women than in men.

The existing data deficiencies could also lead to a widening of the gender health gap as a result of increased AI applications in medicine: "If artificial intelligence predominantly learns from male data, we will move further and further away from equal health opportunities between women and men," warns Alexandra Kautzky-Willer, who was appointed as the first Professor of Gender Medicine at MedUni Vienna in 2010. "We need more investment in women-specific research, collecting and analysing gender-specific data and improving access to gender-specific care," demands Kautzky-Willer.